By Muriel E. Rice
In every generation, God sends people of faith to lay righteous footprints for future generations to follow. These people often stand and move where no one else has traversed and are often known as trailblazers of faith. Such trailblazers gift every faith community; however, during Black Catholic History Month we lift up those trailblazers of St. Edward’s Catholic Church in West Baltimore.
St. Edward trailblazers were individuals of the first generation of African-American Catholics attending the parish during the time of Father Lynn and Father Jordan as pastors. It was a time when African-American Catholics were not welcomed in predominantly white Catholic parishes. St. Edward trailblazers became pioneers, leaders who pointed the way and were willing to push for change.
They had a vision for a different future and a faith that turned their dreams into reality. Some of the trailblazers actually sat in the balcony of St. Edward Church when segregation was in play. The trailblazers did not turn away because of adversity but said “Yes to God and to the Catholic faith,” despite all the discomforts.
These pioneer people were honored during the Umoja Sunday Celebration held last summer. A partial list includes some of the families that changed the landscape of faith-filled fellowship at St. Edward: Brown, Daniels, Davidge, Fugett, Gittings, Harris, Herbert, Jackson, Joseph, Lewis, May, Neale, Pearson, Phillips, Press, Saxon, Welch, Yorkshire, and others.
Many started attending St. Edward because they had relocated to the neighborhood. Prior to attending St. Edward, individuals had attended St. Francis Xavier, St. Peter Claver and/or St. Pius V parishes which were the only African-American Catholic parishes in Baltimore. They were determined to raise their families in the Catholic faith and attend the parish closest to where they lived. Upon attending St. Edward, some of them found the church to be very cold. Some parishioners had to pay 25 cents to have a seat downstairs instead of sitting in the balcony.
Many former parishioners did not welcome the newcomers. If their children attended the parish school, they were kept separate from white children. During this time, St. Agnes School was in the process of renovations and the children from St. Agnes were separated from the African-American children. In fact, the African-American children could not enter the school building until white children had entered the building on rainy days.
Agnes Welch (featured in the Oct. 4 Catholic Review), a trailblazer, became a teacher in the school without a salary. She was paid when the parish had a special collection. The African American children were housed in the cold side of the school, while the other children were housed on the warm side of the school. While stressful, the children received a good Catholic education and participated in many youth activities right in their neighborhood. Additionally, if the children attended a city public school and needed to have sacramental preparation, the city school would release the student so that he or she could attend the parish’s sacramental preparation program.
The trailblazers remained as parishioners because they were born as Catholics and were committed to the Catholic faith. During their tenure, the church community became more loving and caring and was devoted to instilling the Catholic faith to everyone. Parishioners were an active part of the Health and Welfare program, the St. Edward sports programs and also the religious education program. Memorable occasions include youth and senior citizen activities; installation of one of the first archdiocesan African-American priests; the first woman usher; Father Jordan’s colorful Masses; large Catholic families attending the parish; Christmas parties which included nursing home participants, and the installations of Deacon Joseph L. Neale Sr. and Deacon Earl Alexander Smith.
The St. Edward trailblazers demonstrated personal qualities of strength, courage and commitment to their faith. A small percentage of these trailblazers are still active today. They did not walk away thinking their job was done. They made sure that others could follow the path they blazed, keeping their faith in God.
Muriel E. Rice is a parishioner of St. Edward, Baltimore.
Copyright (C) Nov. 15, 2012 CatholicReview.org